Who Done It?

These tracks were found in a patch of sand at Oxbow Park near Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Dennis Deck

What made these tracks? (Hint: It is not a mammal.) [ View Answer ]


If you thought bird, then you are on the right track. Like most birds, this one has four toes (though toe 1 is smaller than the other three and does not show up well). However, the spacing is different than the majority of birds, best characterized as a "K". Furthermore, the toe spacing is variable, i.e., the angle between the toes differs in each track. This narrows the field to owls and woodpeckers.

One way to distinguish owls is to see if the straight part of the "K" is on the inside. In the photo the bird is moving from right to left. The two lower tracks are left feet show the straight part of the "K" on the inside.

The tape measure provides some scale. This is clearly a big bird, the talons are long and quite thick. Given the habitat, our conclusion was great horned owl. Comparison with the measurements and appearance of great horned tracks in the wonderful new book, Bird Tracks and Sign, by Mark Elbroch confirmed our hypothesis.

The tracks of this brush rabbit were found two feet away, headed in the direction of the owl tracks. The age appeared to be the same for both sets of tracks. Our hypothesis was that the owl tried to strike where it thought the rabbit was headed but missed.

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